The Kafue River rises at an elevation of 1350 m on the relatively flat plateau just south the border of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 120 km north-west of Chingola in the Copperbelt Province. The river starts as a trickle from the marshy dambos (the Munyanshi Swamp is a tributary) and with little slope to speed up river flow, it meanders south-eastwards sluggishly and within 50 km has the character of a mature river. Before the river reaches the Copperbelt towns it loses its wide floodplain. At Kitwe it changes course to the south-west and continues 20 km west of the permanent part of the Lukanga Swamp.
The first of the three main wildlife areas of the river, the combined wetland exceeds 6 000 km² in the rainy season. The character of the river changes again, as it enters the Kafue National Park, second largest national park in Africa (about 22,400 km², similar in size to Wales or Massachusetts), where it receives its two largest tributaries, the Lunga and Lufupa rivers. The Kafue skirts the south-east edge of the Busanga Plain, one of Africa’s premier wildlife areas, known for large herds of cape buffalo, zebra and antelope.
A rift valley formed running due east of where the Kafue National Park is now, and the Kafue river, eroding a channel called the Itezhi-Tezhi Gap through a ridge of 100 m high hills, became diverted eastwards. The Itezhi-Tezhi Dam was built in 1977 at the gap and now forms a reservoir 50 km long and up to 10 km wide.
In its journey east, the river flows sluggishly across a flat plain called the Kafue Flats and for the third time develops intricate meanders in a maze of swampy channels and lagoons. This time however it also has an immense shallow flood plain which no roads or railways cross, 240 km long and about 50 km wide, flooded to a depth of less than a meter in the rainy season (deeper in some lagoons and permanently swampy areas), and drying out to a clayey black soil in the dry season. The Kafue Flats are the third major wildlife area of the river. Tens of thousands of Kafue Lechwe live on the Kafue Flats and are adapted to wading the flood. The area also has one of the greatest variety and concentrations of birds in the world. The Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon National Parks have been established on the flats.
Around Mazabuka and as the river gets closer to the town of Kafue, sugar plantations and other large agricultural estates have been established on the fertile black soil and use water from the river in the dry season.
The Kafue Flats end at Kafue town and from there, as the rift valley gets deeper, the river drops 550 m over 60 km through the Kafue Gorge. A second dam, the Kafue Gorge Dam, with a smaller reservoir, generates electricity. The lower Zambezi (originally a separate river) cut back through the rift valleys and eventually captured the Kafue. Their confluence is about 20 km north of Chirundu.
Location (from 11° 36′ 57.31″ S, 27° 2′ 9.53″ E to 15° 56′ 29.48 S, 28° 54′ 50.24 E)
View Kafue River in a larger map
It’s always useful to start with information from the Zambia Tourism Board on Kafue National Park.
Busanga Bush Camp lies in the heart of the Busanga Plains and accommodates 6 guests in 3 well-appointed tents with wall-to-wall views of the spectacular wildlife that frequents the plain in front of the camp.
At Hippo Lodge, days can be spent game-viewing on foot, by vehicle or boat, fishing the Kafue hot spots, ticking away at that bird list, unwinding with a sundowner in a natural hot spring, devouring delicious bush meals on idyllic islands in the Kafue River or catching that intensely beautiful sunset.
The Kafue River Camp is on the north bank of the river, opposite the Kafue National Park, in a game management area to the east of the confluence of the Kafue and Lunga rivers.
The activities-based Kaingu Lodge, some 200km upstream from the Zambezi confluence, enjoys an all-year moderate climate at about 1 200 m above sea level.
Placed on the edge of a ‘tree island’ overlooking the Busanga Plains, Kapinga Camp offers a unique, isolated wilderness experience. Surrounded by open floodplains dotted with palm and fig tree-filled islands, wildlife and bird life is abundant and diverse.
Leopard Lodge is a secluded, family-run game lodge on the banks of the Kafue River. Activities focus on fishing, boat cruises, bird watching & game viewing on foot or by vehicle, incl. night drives. The fishing is excellent: ask the fish eagles!
The Lochinvar Estate has a genuine history as an “Out of Africa” colonial cattle ranch and farm. Bequeathed to the nation in 1904, the old colonial farmhouse still stands, under a preservation order but Lochinvar’s huge swath of unique wetland and floodplain savanna was returned to its wild state. Today it is a World Heritage Wetland Site, situated on the Kafue River floodplain mid way between Livingstone and Lusaka. The Park is now the last stronghold of the Kafue Lechwe, an aquatic antelope of extraordinary grace. The exotic and beautiful Lochinvar Camp is an African fantasy under canvas. The tented lodge shelters under a mature grove of acacia trees on the edge of the wide Chunga Lagoon.
Lufupa River Camp looks out over the Kafue River where it meets the Lufupa Channel – a spectacular setting in the Kafue National Park. Exploring these sparkling, smooth-flowing waterways provides lively wildlife and birding encounters, from hippo to African Finfoot.
Lunga River Lodge is beautifully situated on the west bank of the pristine Lunga River in the north-eastern region of the vast Kafue National Park. The lodge boasts a unique location in a remote corner of the Park where the Lunga River is the centre of activities: exciting mammal viewing and thrilling birding.
Mayukuyuku Camp is situated between the lightly wooded tree line and the Kafue river bank, only 8 km from the Lusaka – Mongu Road, just east of the Kafue Hook Bridge. Fishing from the banks plus launching of boats is both safe and easy.
Nanzhila Plains Safari Camp is a new development in the remote and seldom visited southern sector of Kafue National Park. The area is best known for its lush woodlands of Miombo, Zambezi Teak and Mopane, the beautiful plains and the stream that runs through it.
Puku Pan Safari Lodge is a small & unique lodge on an isolated stretch of the Kafue River in the Namwala West game management area. For those interested in bird life or fishing, Puku Pan is a delight; well over three hundred species of birds have been identified in the area and bream, barbell, catfish and pike are plentiful.
As they dry up, the Busanga Plains attracts herds of lechwe, puku, wildebeest – and their predators: lion, cheetah and wild dog. And Shumba Camp stands in the centre of this wildlife paradise, with its view stretching 360 degrees across the plains to the miombo woodland in the hazy distance.
Based on the borders of Kafue National Park, near to the wonderful Lake Itezhi-Tezhi, Zambia Horse Safaris boasts some of the best horse safari guides in Africa.